FOR CELTICS’ COACH, TRAGEDY MAKES STOP AT CRUEL TIME

BOSTON — He sat at the scorer’s table with the radio announcer, Johnny Most. Out on the Boston Garden court his Celtics players were taking early warmups. The arena was not yet open to the public. There was only the gentle echo of balls thumping against hardwood. Few people in the building knew that K.C. Jones’ mother had died the night before.

“K.C.,” Most began, in his gravelly voice, “on behalf of myself and all our listeners, I want to express our deepest sympathy for your loss.”

He put the microphone in front of the coach’s face, and the coach paused for a moment and then he said “thank you,” softly, barely audible.

And Most waited, and waited, because there is an appropriate time to let terrible news wash over, a time you should respect with silence, and then, that gone, Most went on.

“Now tonight,” he said, “we have to see some real Celtic determination if they hope to win this thing, don’t we?”

Sometimes you can stop for tragedy and other times it stops for you. K.C. Jones is in the middle of the most serious challenge his basketball team has faced this season — the possible end of the season by a strong Pistons team in the Eastern Conference final. It is the kind of thing that dominates your thinking from the moment you get up, it can wake you in the middle of the night, it can keep you from falling back asleep, at least if you’re a good coach, and K.C. Jones is a good coach.

“Well,” Jones said quietly into the microphone, answering the question at hand, “yes, you’re right, we need that determination.” It happens all the time This is the kind of thing that happens now and then to remind us that it happens all the time. K.C. Jones lost his mother, Eula, who lived in Oakland and had been ill for some time, according to the sketchy details one could gather on a night set aside for basketball, not heartache. It was a sad event that was one of hundreds of sad events in this city and thousands in this country, and yet this was strange, because this was happening to a man who was center stage in a big basketball game, national TV, the results of which would beam across the world.

So the Garden doors opened, and the excited fans filed in, they wore green, they carried posters, they slung towels with pictures of Bill Laimbeer, the Pistons’ center, that looked like an old west outlaw poster and read: “WANTED: BILL LAIMBEER, A.K.A. CRY-BABY,” and they screamed at the players still shooting on the court, and they hoisted beers and smacked them together in hopes of a victory, and they filled up the place with emotion. Joy. Fever. Hatred.

Only the coach was in mourning.

“Thank you for being with us, K.C.,” Most said when the interview was concluded.

And the coach stood up, tugged slightly at his dark blue suit, and walked back toward the locker room to prepare for the game.

How many of us could do that? How many of us could go right on with business, could stand in front of TV cameras, could hear ourselves introduced to a screaming crowd when we had lost someone as dear as a mother? How many?

Does it matter? Does a coach have a choice? A coach in Game 5 of the conference final? They tossed the ball up and the game began. His attention divided The Celtics players no doubt knew of their coach’s loss. It no doubt inspired hem. This, after all, is a team that came back strong against Milwaukee in Game 7 of the previous playoff round because, as Larry Bird put it, “K.C. was coaching against an old teammate (Don Nelson) and we couldn’t let him down.”

It matters not how close K.C. Jones was to his mother. How often he saw her. How often he spoke to her. How involved with her he was in her illness.

I only know that every time I looked at Jones Tuesday night, during a time-out, during a break between periods, during the walk into the locker rooms at halftime and the walk back out for the third period, I wondered how much he could be thinking about the game at hand, and how many times his thoughts flew inescapably away, even just for a moment. And, in his case, far more sad.

It happens now and then. It happens all the time. The word is K.C. Jones will skip Game 6 — a game which could decide the series, a game in which the Eastern Conference champion could be crowned, a crucial game, a vital game — because he will be attending his mother’s funeral. Someone else will coach. Someone else will be introduced. Sometimes, when you can’t stop for tragedy, it stops for you anyway.

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